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Restorative justice works well, but not in all cases: Ontario judge

Justice Sheila Ray spoke to an audience Thursday at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law
Dalhousie University. (Meghan Groff/

Restorative justice is an excellent component of Canada’s justice system but it’s not the panacea some in the legal field may feel it is.

That’s one of the messages an Ontario judge delivered to an audience Thursday at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law.

Justice Sheila Ray said restorative justice is “about repairing relationships.” This includes Aboriginal sentencing circles, which she said can also be fine and practical for all concerned, yet acknowledged they’re not appropriate in some cases.

“You need the right environment for this,” said Ray, a Toronto-based judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, which is that province’s provincial court of record.

She said in general, restorative justice “can be successful. You pick and choose the right cases for it.”

Ray said she’s personally seen restorative justice work very well, “but I do not disagree with the school of thought, where I work, that it’s not appropriate in some cases.”

Appointed to the bench in 1992, Ray is a former advisor to the Federal Department of Justice on criminal justice and regulatory reform matters. She told Dal law students and others that with respect to Aboriginal sentencing circles, there’s a common misconception linked to this sentencing option.

“It’s not an automatic lighter sentence,” said Ray. “It doesn’t mean there’s never going to be (temporary) separation from the community” for the offender, she said.

Ray grew up in the Annapolis Valley and graduated from Dalhousie’s law school in 1980. She said her parents were from India and her family moved to Nova Scotia in 1967, this country’s centennial year.

Nova Scotia’s Department of Justice has a restorative justice program that affects crime victims, offenders and communities. It started as a pilot project in 1997, initially targeting youth aged 12 to 17 in trouble with the law.

Another project in the province using the restorative model is the inquiry into past abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. It’s due to conclude in March 2019.

As well, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission offers the restorative method as an alternative to the standard dispute-resolution system. Nova Scotia was the first province to integrate restorative justice tenets into an administrative body, (its human rights commission), the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society reported in 2015.

In Aboriginal sentencing circles, the court invites interested parties in a case to join the judge, lawyers, police, the victim, offender, community elders and others to meet to discuss relevant factors and sentencing options, a federal government website says.

“Sentencing circles can be a valuable way of getting input and advice from the community to help the judge set an appropriate and effective sentence,” the site says. “Often the circle will suggest a restorative community sentence involving some form of restitution to the victim” and other measures the judge may decide to accept, or not.

Ray spoke during a Dalhousie Law Hour event, a lunchtime lecture that’s offered on a regular basis to Dal students, faculty members and the community at large. Law Hour has been in place at the university since the 1960s, according to the barristers’ society.

Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter living in Dartmouth

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